With a world of possibilities still open to the Washington Nationals this off-season, it’s starting to look more and more likely that Jayson Werth will be in center field when opening day rolls around. GM Mike Rizzo further reinforced the idea when he spoke on MLB Network Radio earlier today. It’s the strongest indication yet that his pursuit for a realistic answer in center field this winter has failed.
“We see the 2013 free agent class at center field is much stronger than it is for the 2012 season. With that in mind we know Jayson [Werth] can handle the center field position. It’s not a perfect world for us.”
Rizzo also stated again for the record, as he did last week on the telephone press conference announcing the Gio Gonzalez trade, that Adam LaRoche is going to be the Nats first baseman in 2012. Sounds as if Nats fans need to relegate themselves to the fact that Prince Fielder won’t be wearing a Curly W on opening day unless something extraordinary happens.
Where does that leave the Nats then? For starters, that means 2011 team MVP Michael Morse will be forced to play left field, a position he had his troubles with last season. By any defensive metric, Morse was quite below average in the outfield last season — and for his career in whole. He was slightly better at first base than in the outfield, but the Nats aren’t paying Morse for his defense. They hope (pray) he can follow-up his career hitting year (at age 29) with something closely approximate.
Which leaves us with the gaping, Bryce Harper sized hole in right field.
The best-case scenario is that Harper overwhelms the Nats brass in spring training and heads north with the team. Davey Johnson has said repeatedly that he’ll bring his best 25 players with him to D.C. opening day. At this point, looking at the collection of outfielders on the Major League roster and those invited to spring training on minor league contracts or non-roster invitees, it’s almost hard to imagine Harper not being the best of the lot at 19 years of age.
But Harper has a total of 37 games and 147 plate appearances above Single-A. Granted, he tore up the Arizona Fall League once he got acclimated to it, hitting .333/.400/.634 with 6 home runs and 26 RBIs in 25 games. Still, just looking at his body of work at Double-A Harrisburg last season, you wouldn’t think a normal player would go from 37 games worth of .256/.329/.395 to the big leagues. He’s going to have to stand head-and-shoulders above the competition for Rizzo to allow him to make that jump.
So say Harper doesn’t “wow” team officials in Florida. Who plays right field? Currently, the Nats have but four outfielders on the 40-man roster: Werth, Harper, Roger Bernadina and Eury Perez. Mike Cameron will be added soon. The newly-signed Mark DeRosa has played outfield, but did not last season for San Francisco and hasn’t played right field since the nine games he saw there in 2009 with Cleveland. Washington signed veteran outfielders Brett Carroll, Jason Michaels and Xavier Paul to minor league contracts. And Corey Brown, who got a cup of coffee with the Nats when rosters expanded last season, was extended an invitation to spring training.
So Plan A in right field right now appears to be Harper. Plan B? Cameron? A platoon of Bernadina and Cameron or Michaels? Oh boy. For a team that just bet the ranch on Gio Gonzalez, they better hope Harper adjusts quickly and wins the job, because those fall-back options are not those of a competitive team.
Though Bernadina has some skill, with double-digit power and speed, he still hasn’t put it all together and at age 27 (28 in June), he has probably reached his full potential already. Besides, if the Nats were planning on Bernadina to be in the opening day lineup, Rizzo wouldn’t be talking about Werth in center in such definitive tones.
There are a few free agents still available that could come in and contribute, but if Harper really is Plan A then they shouldn’t want to sign anyone as a free agent to block his path. The Nats have plenty of guys with Major League experience to provide outfield depth. If they sign a starter before spring training, don’t expect Harper to make the team.